Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Technical

Can we create an environmentally habitable Bangladesh?

Since independence, Dhaka’s population had exploded from just about 1.5 million in 1971 to over 21 million in 2020, a 14-fold increase as opposed to 2.5-fold for the entire population of Bangladesh. Hence, for all practical purpose, Dhaka is Bangladesh. As a consequence, Dhaka has undergone rapid unplanned urbanisation that has replaced its natural environment with a new environment. It is now a boom town with a thriving real-estate market, a growing middle class, and a vibrant gastronomic, cultural and intellectual life. In a nutshell, Dhaka is an incredibly bubbly city, full of energy and pizzazz.

Having said that, amongst the least liveable cities in the world, Dhaka is ranked behind Lagos in Nigeria, and the capitals of war-ravaged Libya and Syria. And in the Human Development Index, Bangladesh stands at 133 out of 189 countries. These statistics, though unflattering, reflect the myriad of problems with which Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh are beset with, thereupon making them surreal places to live, places that are both frenetic and paralysed.

Unbridled expansion of cities in Bangladesh has often meant inept replacement of houses in residential areas of yesteryears with multi-storied luxury apartments, high-rise offices, ritzy shopping malls, cultural centres, sports facilities, private schools and universities. In the process, low-income families have been forced into slum-like neighbourhoods, while the poorest of the poor have been pushed into omnipresent slums, where communicable diseases fester and fires sporadically raze homes to the ground.

Stifling in the summer, often overrun with cockroaches, rats, stray cats and dogs, with trash littered all over the neighbourhood and obnoxious odour emanating from the sewer-less, burlap draped, precariously perched outhouses, a slum is unquestionably a rotten place to stay. In their zeal to gentrify cities so that they become liveable for the upper- and middle-class people, city fathers often throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Instead, with a more humane approach, slums can be improved to the point where they become safer and environmentally cleaner places to live. As an example, Harlem in Upper Manhattan in New York City once epitomised poverty, crime and crumbling infrastructure. In the 1980s, urban renewal projects that included community revitalisation and housing rehabilitation programmes radically transformed the ghettos of Harlem into endurable hamlets.

In the race to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of people, cities and suburbs are likely to continue to sprawl across Bangladesh. The sprawl, however, need not be chaotic. In the new cities and suburbs, there should be preservation of some open space through parkland, promenades, scenic easements and cluster zoning that will provide breathing space and a sense of relationship between man-made environment and natural environment. Schools, houses of worship and neighbourhood parks, to name a few, should be within walking distance of the residential areas. This will reduce dependence on cars that are a major cause of global warming, not counting traffic jams. Simply stated, before any amelioration of the grimmer aspects of urban life can be hoped for, long-range green planning is imperative. Otherwise, we will be living in an eco-unfriendly jungle of concrete structures.

As cities grow in size, so does their impact on the environment. Most importantly, they can modify some of the local climatological factors in their immediate vicinity, resulting in a relatively small-scale but tangible variation in the local climate, which is called “urban heat island effect,” or more generally microclimate.

On a hot summer night, when we walk down a city street, we can feel the heat shimmering up from the dark asphalt roads and concrete pavements which absorb copious amount of solar radiation, whereas in wintertime, we can see clouds of steam pouring out of manholes or sewer gratings. With the loss of evaporative cooling normally provided by vegetation and exposed soil, the gain of reradiated heat from these surfaces, sewers and buildings, along with the heat produced by industries, the mean temperature of cities is on the rise. While microclimate does not produce dramatic changes in temperature, over the years the cumulative effects of these heat sources are clearly noticeable in the average temperatures of 1970s Dhaka and present Dhaka.

For the improvement of urban microclimate, it is important to maintain and/or create cold-air areas, open spaces and wooded patches. Trees an effective tool at fighting global warming will help to reduce temperature of the air by a process known as transpiration cooling. Furthermore, connected parks and green zones, preservation of lakes and rivers, creation of artificial water surfaces and large-scale heat retention expanses are essential elements of a habitable city.

Apart from microclimate, buildings contribute substantially to global warming because they use lots of energy usually generated by fossil fuels for cooking, lighting, heating and cooling. The reduction of heat loss in the winter and cool air in the summer through poorly insulated old windows is the key to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Additionally, within the context of local environmental and socioeconomic factors, several studies have been conducted to find innovative green solutions to the many climate-related problems caused by buildings. One of them is white roof which, according to researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, reflects three times the sunshine than a green rooftop garden that is used in many residential buildings in Dhaka.

In terms of air quality, Dhaka ranks as one of the worst cities in the world. Because the city is perennially drowned in a sea of polluted air, it is often labelled as “hell with the lid off.” Indeed, the entire population of Bangladesh is regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air.

Most of the pollutants in Dhaka’s air and elsewhere are anthropogenic, such as effluents from vehicles, emissions from industries and power plants using fossil fuels. Other sources are roadside waste dump facilities, methane-emitting agricultural waste, contaminants from foundries, not to mention dust and smoke from the thousands of slender, cylindrical chimneys attached to the wood- and coal-fired kilns of brick fields. The large quantities of pernicious pollutants emitted by these sources are precursors to the formation of smog, the worst form of air pollution with dangerous health consequences, especially for children and the elderly.

While Millennium Development Goals have helped many countries combat the issue of unsafe drinking water, majority of Bangladeshis still do not have access to clean water. Tap water supplied by local municipalities is dirty and therefore undrinkable, while people in the countryside are drinking water contaminated with arsenic and other life-threatening heavy metals.

A possible solution to the freshwater problem is rain and the roof a la Bermuda. Made of limestone blocks and sliced into individual slates, the roofs of houses in Bermuda are fashioned in step-like sloped surfaces with gutter ridges to collect rainwater, the most precious liquid in the tiny island nation. The ridges direct the water through a long concrete trough to a pipe that filters and funnels it into a tank buried alongside the house so that it can be pumped and used throughout the household.

All the cities in Bangladesh are dirty beyond description. Garbage can be found everywhere—by roads, on the roads; around parks, in the parks; by rivers, in the rivers; inside trash cans, outside trash cans. Garbage disposal is not a recent problem, though it certainly has been made more difficult by the sharp rise in population in the past few decades. Despite some progress, the overwhelming mass of household garbage is thrown into landfills in the outlying areas of the cities and left untreated. These unsightly and smelly midden heaps not only emit poisonous gases that are harmful to human health, but also provide a cosy home for the disease carrying vermin, mosquitoes and flies.

The problem is exacerbated during the monsoon season, when cities become submerged for days in a row. Consequently, the storm drains, albeit few and far between, clog up and the cities resemble a huge pond filled with filth and scum.

Finding a clean public toilet anywhere in Bangladesh is next to impossible. Decency dictates that women must suffer, yet allows men to indulge in the malpractice of emptying their bladder by the roadside. The offensive smell of urine, together with malodorous roadside trash, not only makes walking on the sidewalks a horrific experience, it also contributes markedly to odour pollution which, in turn, worsens the already poor quality of air.

As much as the government is battling to tackle this civic problem with signs at strategic points warning of prosecution for infractions, the seemingly endless number of offenders ignore the warning and happily continue to relieve themselves in public. That being so, we have no choice but shame the perpetrators.

Humans are not the only waste producers in Bangladesh. Industries are not far behind. Of the many industries which add hazardous wastes to the load already present from domestic wastes, two stands out conspicuously. They are garment factories and tanneries.

The canals and wetlands of Savar and Ashulia, located near Dhaka and home to hundreds of garment factories, are now effectively retention ponds of untreated waste and effluents produced by these factories. Nearby rivers are so polluted with toxic materials that they run purple, blue and black. Aside from making agricultural land barren and useless, the pollutants are loading the local air with noxious fumes.

Hazaribagh in the heart of Dhaka was once home to a slew of tanneries. Before their relocation to Savar, the tanneries discharged unprocessed liquid waste containing deadly chemicals into the nearby ponds, rivers and canals. These wastes eventually ended up in the Buriganga River whose once pristine blue water now looks like turbid sewage water. Needless to say, the river has suffered irreversible biodiversity loss.

Another plague from which there is virtually no escape, irrespective of where we are—in our homes and gardens, on our streets, inside our cars, parks and in other public places, is noise. Like second-hand smoke, noise has become an unwanted pollutant produced by others and imposed on us without our consent, often against our will. Without question, noise can damage hearing and there is no threshold for ear damage. But more subtly, noise increases tensions already heightened by other stresses of urban life.

Among the many sources of outdoor noise pollution, cacophony produced by the horns of automobiles, trucks and buses are the worst offenders, followed closely by construction equipment. The sound intensity level from these sources often exceeds 120 decibels, which is the threshold of pain.

Noise is a controllable pollution, but sadly the government has done very little to alleviate the suffering of its citizens from this scourge. Nevertheless, there is something we can do to stop noise from invading the interior of our house. Within the buildings, we can dampen sound significantly by constructing walls with dead air spaces.

Forests are the lungs of a nation, purifying the air we breathe. However, the increasing demand for land for agriculture, homes and industries caused by population explosion is taking a heavy toll on the forests in Bangladesh. To meet the demands, close to half the forests have been destroyed in the last 20 years or so by indiscriminately cutting down trees. Moreover, once the coal-fired Rampal Power Plant goes into operation, one of the most ecologically sensitive rainforests in the world – the Sundarbans – will be in its firing line.

Lest we forget, nature not only abhors vacuum, it abhors human interference, too. A true wilderness should be viewed bio-centrically. The forests should be free to burn, free to be blown away by storms, free to be washed away by floods and free to be attacked by insects. These are natural events to which forests are adapted to respond. The new forests that will emerge may be different from the old ones, but that is the way things change in a natural ecosystem.

The present problems of Bangladesh, alarming no doubt, are not unsolvable. There is every reason to expect that the country can be made habitable. To that end, policymakers need to know how transportation system can be designed to meet the needs of the people; what makes one neighbourhood exciting to live in and another boring; what human needs are not met in present housing; what environmental steps should be taken to improve the quality of air and water, and so on and so forth? The answers to these questions can then be incorporated in any future plans for redesigning old cities or building new ones, so that they not only become liveable but enjoyable as well.

At the same time, Bangladesh’s transformation into a liveable country cannot be achieved overnight. It will perhaps take decades, but before that climate change will leave an indelible mark on the country, thereby making the task of restoring liveability conditions even more arduous, mainly in the low-lying coastal areas.

Bangladesh is Mother Nature’s punching bag. The country is experiencing extreme weather phenomena that are growing only more dramatic, more devastating and more lethal by the year. Of the many threats from climate change, sea level rise will certainly be amongst the most impactful, making the entire coastline of Bangladesh uninhabitable and potentially displacing tens of millions of people in the coming years.

Preparing for climate change is much more than a technological challenge. It is primarily a problem of mindset and collective action. The way to outsmart breakdown due to climate change is to build climate resilience. We can surely do this by adopting environmentally sound lifestyles, not by reverting to antiquated ways, but by creating a new synthesis, a new way of life that utilises modern technology and knowledge to protect the Earth’s environment from destruction and foster its renewal.

Finally, grappling with the problems of Bangladesh and keeping the country liveable is a daunting task. Even so, with clear vision and open mind, it can be done. Success will hinge on the courage of the government to make bold moves and resist the temptation of easy fixes. Once we adapt ourselves to the vagaries of climate change, as well as achieve the balance of a liveable environment, life will be worth living for our children and grandchildren.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Our oceans: The ultimate sump

Plastic pollution

Today is “World Oceans Day,” a day observed worldwide to raise awareness about the crucial role the oceans play in sustaining life on Earth. It is also a day to appreciate the beauty of the oceans that “brings eternal joy to the soul.”

The oceans are among our biggest resources and also our biggest dumping grounds. Because they are so vast and deep, many of us believe that no matter how much garbage we dump into them, the effects would be negligible. Proponents of dumping even have a mantra: “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Really! In case they don’t know, garbage dumped into the oceans is continuously mixed by wind and waves and widely dispersed over huge surface areas.

There is a zone in the Pacific Ocean, called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a gyre of marine garbage twice the size of Texas. The garbage, mainly microplastics, were carried there by strong currents from other parts of the ocean. This is not the only floating garbage in our oceans. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans have their own garbage patches. Worse yet, the sheer size of the patches is making clean-up efforts an extremely difficult task.

Surely, human activities are impacting the oceans in drastic ways. Some of the anthropogenic environmental issues that are affecting the oceans are plastic pollution, oil spills, climate change and noise. One of the most dangerous threats the oceans may face in this century is radioactive pollution.

Each year, we dump nearly eight million tonnes of plastic—mostly grocery bags, water bottles, yogurt cups, drinking straws and plastic utensils—into the oceans. Recently, plastic has been discovered in the deepest part (11 kilometres) of the world’s oceans, Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Extremely elevated concentration of PCBs, an environment-damaging chemical banned in the 1970s, have also been found within the sediment of the trench.

While it takes hundreds of years for plastics to decompose fully, some of them break down much quicker into tiny, easy-to-swallow particles that can easily be ingested by marine species causing choking, starvation and other impairments.

Pollution of the oceans by oil spills has been one of the major concerns for a long time. The primary source of spill is offshore drilling. The process is inherently dangerous and thus, is prone to accidents. When accidents happen, and they do happen without warning, they cause massive damage to the environment—aquatic and shore—that persists for decades to come. Some oil spills happen when tankers transporting petroleum products have accidents.

If the layer of the oil is thick enough, it smothers creatures unable to move out from under it. Besides, swimming and diving birds become covered with oil, which mats their feathers, reducing their buoyancy and preventing flight. The insulative value of feathers is also lost and the birds quickly die of exposure in cold water.

The world’s largest oil spill was not an accident; it was the result of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The second worst disaster was the spill by BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. Both incidents killed tens of thousands of birds, marine mammals, sea turtles and fish, among others.

Land and oceans together absorb slightly more than half of all the carbon dioxide emissions, with the oceans taking a greater share. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid. Various studies estimate that if we keep on pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the current rate, then by the year 2100, the water of the oceans could be nearly 150 percent more acidic than they are now. Such a large increase in acidity would upset the productivity and composition of many coastal ecosystems by affecting the key species at the base of the oceanic food webs. It would also reduce calcium carbonate, which is essential for building the shells and skeletons of creatures like mussels, clams, corals and oysters.

Because oceans absorb more than 90 percent of the heat that is added to the climate system, sea level is changing, albeit unevenly. It is changing unevenly as oceans do not warm uniformly across the planet, with the southern oceans warming at a faster rate. In addition, global reef systems are slowly migrating poleward as oceans around the world continue to warm.

The single most significant contribution to rising sea level is from the thermal expansion of water. Melting ice makes the second most important contribution, but only melting of land-based ice—glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets—is significant. Ice that is already floating in the water—iceberg—makes essentially no change in sea level when it melts, because the greater density of water offsets the volume of ice that is not submerged. Other factors that contribute to the rise in sea level include wind and ocean circulations, depth of the oceans, deposition of sediments by river flows and alteration of the hydrologic cycle by humans.

According to some studies, global sea level rose by about 18 cms during the last century. In the worst-case scenario, sea level could rise by two metres by the end of the year 2100. Arguably, rising sea level is among the potentially most catastrophic effects of human-caused climate change.

The oceans are no longer “The Silent World” of the famous oceanic explorer Jacques Cousteau. Today, they are being acoustically bleached by noise from seismic blasts used for offshore oil and gas exploration, marine traffic and military sonar.

Unlike plastic pollution, noise pollution does not have the visual impact that is needed to spark an outcry and force action. It is an invisible menace that is drowning out the sounds of many marine animals, including fish, use for navigation, communicating with each other, finding food, choosing mates and warning others of potential dangers.

Whales and dolphins are particularly vulnerable to noise pollution. The deafening seismic blasts and the ping of sonar are responsible for the loss of their hearing and habitat, and disruption in their mating and other vital behaviours. The disappearance of beaked whales in the Bahamas in recent years have been attributed to testing of US Navy sonar systems in the region.

From 1946 through 1993, nuclear countries used the oceans to dispose of radioactive wastes. The United States alone dumped more than 110,000 containers of nuclear material off its coasts. Russia dumped some 17,000 containers of radioactive wastes and several nuclear reactors, including some containing spent nuclear fuel.

It is highly likely that radioactive wastes would eventually leak out of the containers because of poor insulation, volcanic activity, tectonic plate movement and several other geological factors. Indeed, last month, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres confirmed that a Cold War era concrete “coffin” filled with nuclear waste is leaking radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean. Since radiation from nuclear wastes remains active for hundreds of thousands of years, their dangerous effects will linger for a long time and will have lethal impact on marine life.

Furthermore, six nuclear submarines — 4 Russian and 2 American — lost as a result of accidents are lying at the bottom of the oceans. They represent serious threat of radioactive contamination of the oceans, too.

One of the biggest contaminations due to radiation was caused by a series of nuclear tests conducted by the USA on the sea, in the air and underwater at Bikini Atoll in the North Pacific between 1946 and 1958. The French nuclear tests carried out during 1966-1996 in French Polynesia are responsible for other cases of intense radioactive pollution of marine ecosystems.

Clearly, we are using the oceans as the ultimate sump, partly because their very immensity seems to preclude any long-term effect, and partly because they belong to no one. This cannot continue indefinitely because in order for us to survive, we have to protect the oceans. Lest we forget, life emerged from the oceans and the source of most of the oxygen we breathe are the oceans. They have been an endless source of inspiration to humankind.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Political, Religious

Bangladesh’s economic potential in jeopardy

Bangladesh has come a long way since the dark days of early part of liberation (1970s) when the country did not have sufficient funds to pay for diplomatic missions abroad, when the prime minister had to rely on the charity of foreign countries to have urgent medical treatment abroad, when the country did not have money to offer proper burial to the freedom fighters. Henry Kissinger, the arch opponent of Bangladesh’s liberation, branded the country as a basket-case of the world! Those were the darkest days of the Bangladesh’s history.

Now over 46 years later, Bangladesh is in much better shape economically. Although it is still the poorest of the world’s 10 most populous nations, its economy is outperforming many of those well-heeled populous nations. The Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the UN all indicate that Bangladesh is presently steaming ahead economically. Nonetheless, they hasten to add the caveat that unless the country urgently reforms the education system and eliminate endemic corruption, the progress may be stunted.

For the time being, the economy is flourishing. As per the Global Finance Magazine report, Bangladesh has an international reserve of USD 31.8 billion (2016) and its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is USD 246.2 billion (2016). The GDP growth is 6.9% (2017) and the GDP per capita value is USD 1508 (2017), which is somewhat higher than that of Pakistan.

At the time of liberation, Bangladesh was primarily an agricultural country. But 46 years later in 2016, the agricultural output accounts for only 15.1%, industry accounts for 28.6% and the service sector is 56.3% of the GDP. The garment industry alone accounts for 25% of the service sector and earns 80% of all exports. This rebalancing of the economy from agriculture to multi-sectors is a tremendous success for the country.

The economic benefit was not confined to rich urban population. The national wealth has been distributed to the rural population also and poverty rates have dropped. In 1991, more than 40% of the population lived in extreme poverty and now, according to the World Bank, it is less than 14%. That means that over 42 million people have been pulled out of extreme poverty.

Bangladesh has also achieved success in population control. Although Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the population growth rate has been somewhat tamed. This can be gauged when it is compared with Pakistan, as shown in the following Table.

Population Growth

Country        1955      1960      1965      1970        1975      1985      1995      2005      2015


Bangladesh  2.14%   2.73%    2.98%    3.1%        1.85%    2.73%   2.25%    1.74%    1.16%
Pakistan        1.49%   2.13%    2.51%    2.7%        2.83%    3.39%   2.67%    2.13%    2.12%

The striking feature is that before the liberation, the population growth rates in the then East Pakistan was consistently higher than the national average (comprising East and West Pakistan), but after the liberation it is consistently lower than Pakistan (previously West Pakistan). The economy of the then East Pakistan was far inferior to West Pakistan’s before liberation; but after liberation it showed dramatic improvement. The conclusion that can be drawn from the Table is that as prosperity is achieved, the population growth rate declines and vice versa. In other words, the population growth rate and the economic growth rate show negative correlation.

There are, however, ominous signs for Bangladesh in the horizon of the prospect of continued growth. The Global Finance Report had clearly spelled out that unless the education system of the country is improved and corruption is reduced, the potential economic prospect may be jeopardised. Along with these two vital issues, one may add a few more issues and these are: adversarial political system, Islamic fundamentalism and, of course, perpetual traffic congestion in the capital city, Dhaka.

The education system of the country is a major cause for concern. The standards of education, particularly in the public sector, had degenerated so much that the vast majority of graduate and even post-graduate degree holders cannot even write decent sentences either in Bengali or in English. One has only to look at the comments these imbeciles make in various newspapers. The education system has been polluted by politicising it right from the primary level. The public university teachers are less interested in teaching and more so in political sycophancy, wage increases and promotions. University teachers are promoted on the basis of length of service (just like departmental clerks), not on academic excellence or quality of teaching or research. In any department of any university, more than 50% of the teaching staff are ‘professors’ (achieved due to length of service), which is a shameful situation. The proliferation of so-called ‘professors’, with little or no calibre, makes the whole system stink.

In addition, there is a very large sector of Islamic education, which was not present even in Pakistan days. There are 19,000 madrassahs with an enrolment of about 10 million children. These children will grow up as the unproductive population! The government has also established an Islamic Foundation to supervise Imams and Mullahs of 275,000 mosques (and increasing) in the country. These people are all devoted to spreading religious messages, not economic growth!

The binary political system between the Bangladesh Awami League and the BNP makes a mockery of the democratic system. When one party gets to power, its sole aim is to keep the other party out and inflict on it as much damage as possible. Alongside this objective is concentrated efforts in syphoning of state assets as quickly as possible, as in the next election this party may not be in power.

This looting of state assets is perennial. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) chairman, Iqbal Mahmood, has recently said that if large scale government corruption such as in procurement, project evaluation and implementation etc. can be avoided, then the GDP growth could go up by about 2 per cent. This means that 6.9% (2017) could well be 8.9% without corruption.

Dhaka traffic

Dhaka’s traffic condition is just a nightmare. Travelling just five or six miles across the city at any time of the day can take well over two hours. How the office workers manage to attend offices day after day is a mystery. Besides spending endless unproductive hours on the road, the people are subjected to high or very high levels of toxic pollution arising from exhaust fumes of transport vehicles. No wonder the UN report persistently categorises Dhaka as one of the most unliveable cities in the world.

Corruption is endemic right across the board. Even the definition of corruption has been rejigged. A senior politician asserted that if money is not transferred from one person to another, it cannot be called corruption. So, if students are allowed to pass exams illegally or get higher grades simply due to political affiliations, it is not corruption. If people are appointed or promoted in the public services from political considerations or sycophancy, these are not corruption! No wonder, the world bodies are pointing towards corruption as the nemesis of Bangladesh’s continued progress.

Let me finish it off with a joke. Three old men – one American, one Russian and one Bangladeshi – went to God to seek answers to their burning questions.
First, the American asked, “God, when will the politicians in America work together for the good of the people?”. God replied, “25 years.” The old man started to cry that he would not live to see that day.
Next, the Russians asked God, “God, when will democracy be restored in Russia?”. God replied, “50 years”. The old Russian started to cry that his days will be well over before that day.
Finally, the Bangladeshi asked God, “God, when will Bangladesh be free from corruption?”. God then started to cry and finally said, “Not in my lifetime.”

 

– A. Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Bangladesh, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Was Alchemists’ dream realised in plutonium?

Glenn T. Seaborg
Glenn T Seaborg

In the history of human civilisation, no scientific discovery exploded in the face of mankind as did plutonium-239. The element was produced for the first time on March 28, 1941 at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California by a team of physicists and chemists led by Glenn T. Seaborg, the 1951 Chemistry Nobel Laureate. It was the realisation of an alchemists’ dream of large-scale transmutation, a synthetic element produced by human being.

Seaborg submitted the paper on their discovery to the journal Physical Review, but the paper was not accepted after it was assumed that plutonium may be used to build an atomic bomb. The existence of plutonium was nonetheless loudly announced to the world by the nuclear bomb dropped over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Thus, plutonium came into existence as a lethal weapon-grade material. Also, the discoverers of plutonium were allowed to publish their findings after the war ended.

Plutonium-239 is a highly radioactive element. A radioactive element disintegrates emitting energetic nuclear particles and radiation. The potency of a radioactive material is determined not only by the radiation it emits but also by its half-life. A radioactive material that emits alpha particle is highly hazardous, if it is inhaled or ingested. On the other hand, materials which emit penetrating x-rays and gamma rays are hazardous even at large distances as these radiations can travel large distances in air and irradiate the whole body. The time period over which the radioactive material remains hazardous is determined by its half-life. The half-life is the time period over which the activity decays to half of its original value. A radioactive material with short half-lives will become relatively harmless in a short period of time. On the other hand, a material with long half-life will remain radioactive for a long period of time. The significant parameter from hazardous point of view is the specific activity – activity in unit mass of the substance.

Plutonium has 20 isotopes – nuclei with the same number of protons but different number of neutrons. The longest-lived is plutonium-244, with a half-life of 80.8 million years. Two other isotopes with long half-life are plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,100 years and plutonium-242, with a half-life of 374,000 years. All of the remaining isotopes have half-life that are less than 7,000 years.

All the isotopes of plutonium are primordial elements, meaning they existed (albeit in low concentrations) since the Earth was formed 4.55 billion years ago. However, since their half-life is much less than the age of the Earth, nearly all of them had decayed into lighter elements by now. Nonetheless, small traces of plutonium-239, a few parts per trillion, were found in some uranium ores, such as the natural reactor in Oklo, Gabon. In 1971, trace quantities of plutonium-244 were discovered in Precambrian-era phosphate in southern California.

Currently, most of the plutonium found in the Earth’s environment resulted from human activities, in particular, from the now banned atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. It is estimated that since 1945, about 7,700 kg has been released through nuclear explosions. As there are no natural sources of plutonium, all of the plutonium presently in stock throughout the world is produced in commercial power reactors, as well as in special purpose reactors designed for weapons production.

Plutonium-239 decays by emitting alpha particles, which is the helium nucleus. External exposure to alpha particles isn’t much of a health risk. Because of their low penetration, they are stopped by the outer layer of the skin. But they are highly dangerous if inhaled. They cause damage to DNA, which, in turn, increases the risk of cancer. Plutonium-239 in the atmosphere can enter our body through body wounds. Once inside, it remains within the body for a long period of time and irradiate the body organs and tissues by the  emission of alpha particles. It is, however, eliminated from the body very slowly through excretion. It may take around 30 to 50 years for plutonium to become biologically insignificant within our body.

The adverse effects of plutonium on the environment are not that alarming. They may enter the soil and groundwater from accidental releases and improper disposal of wastes from a nuclear reactor. Soil can also become contaminated through fallout during underground nuclear weapons testing. Plants absorb plutonium, but the levels are not high enough to cause bio magnification of plutonium up the food chain, or accumulation in the bodies of animals.

Besides using it to make nuclear weapons, plutonium is used for some peaceful purposes too. Along with uranium-235 and uranium-233, plutonium-239 as well as plutonium-241 is used as fuel in reactors at commercial nuclear power plants.

Nuclear powered cardiac pacemakers use plutonium-238 batteries. They can keep the heart ticking for up to 30 years, much longer than pacemakers using lithium-iodine cell batteries which last anywhere from about five to 12 years. When one of these patients dies, the pacemaker is removed and shipped to Los Alamos National Laboratory where the plutonium is recovered. People using plutonium-powered pacemakers are still alive though.

The US space agency NASA has used this isotope of plutonium to power its space instruments–  all the way from the experiments for the Apollo lunar missions to the deep-space probes, such as the Pathfinder, Pioneer, Voyager, New Horizons and Cassini.
Today, plutonium serves as an explosive ingredient in tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the possession of a Superpower led by a person with questionable mental stability and a rogue nation with an enigmatic and unpredictable leader. There is a high risk that these two men may unleash this weapon of mass destruction and annihilate not only each other but also the whole of mankind.

  • The writer, Quamrul Haider, is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York
Bangladesh, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious, Technical

Is human race heading towards extinction?

If we are spared the nuclear holocaust, then pollution and climate change would be responsible for our extinction

human-race-heading (2) - Copy

Since life on Earth evolved in the form of bacteria approximately 3.5 billion years ago, there had been five mass extinctions. The first one occurred 440 million years ago and the last one 65 million years ago. They had been caused by such things as climate change due to severe ice age, volcanoes, restructuring of the Earth’s crust during the formation of the super-continent Pangaea 250 million years ago, other forces of Nature and an asteroid impact.

Extinction, albeit not on a massive scale, is a natural phenomenon, a part of evolution. An examination of the evolutionary records reveals that extinction follows a pattern of species gradually becoming extinct and being replaced by newly evolved species. That’s because there is only a finite number of available niches on our planet for species to survive. Moreover, each species has a unique lifestyle not shared by any other species. As their habitat changes, their lifestyle also changes. If species cannot adapt to these changes, they become extinct. Their place is taken by species which evolves to fit the changed environment. This is known as a gradual extinction.

In the last 500 years, a short period of time on the geological scale, some 320 birds, mammals and reptiles had become extinct. The extinction of so many species over a few hundred years makes it difficult to ascribe the phenomenon to climatological, geological or astronomical events alone. It leads one to speculate that something unusual must have happened during this time frame. In particular, were these extinctions caused by humans who had and still have a greater impact on his environment? The answer is, yes.

With our entry as an ecological factor, there has been a shift from gradual extinction to abrupt, habitat-emptying extinction. We have profoundly affected the species that share the planet with us. Because of our activities, they seem to be vanishing at an unprecedanted rapid rate. This raises the question: Are we also pushing ourselves to the precipice of mass extinction?

Indeed, many scientists are predicting that we are on track for a sixth mass extinction. This time the cause won’t be global cooling or volcanic eruptions. It will be the work of a single species ‒ the Homo sapiens.

Of the many possible scenarios, nuclear conflict is the most likely one by which human civilization may become extinct in a jiffy. With the fingers of two mentally unstable men on the nuclear button, this scenario seems to be ever more likely now. After Trump’s “fire and fury” threat, the infamous Doomsday Clock was moved ahead by 30 seconds closer to midnight. The clock was created by former Manhattan Project scientists in 1947 in an effort to bring public attention to the threat of nuclear war!

If we are spared the nuclear holocaust, then pollution and climate change would be responsible for our extinction. Today, we live in a planet poisoned by toxins dumped by us. All forms of life, including human beings, are mired in a toxic swamp. The toxins are in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. As renowned explorer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau said: “Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.”

We are changing the global climate by pumping about 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year into the atmosphere. According to the World Meteorological Organization, last year’s emission was 50 percent higher than the average of the past 10 years. The present concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 403 parts per million, is the highest in recorded history.

Thus, the dangers posed by the greenhouse effect are real and scary. Global temperature is increasing, ozone layer has been depleted, hydrological cycle is being disrupted, sea levels are rising, polar ice caps are melting, tropical rainforests are disappearing, wildfires are on the rise, semiarid lands are turning to deserts and bizarre, violent weather patterns have grown in numbers in recent years. The utter devastation of Houston, many Eastern Caribbean Islands and Puerto Rico by relentless rains, punishing winds and dangerous storm surges caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in August and September of this year are still fresh in our memory.

What is more alarming is that if we allow our planet to become even warmer, then hundreds of millions of tonnes of frozen methane buried under the Arctic Ocean floor, often referred to as the “Arctic Time Bomb,” would be released into the atmosphere. In an article published in 2014 in the journal Science, researchers report that concentration of methane in the atmosphere has been growing rapidly since 2007. They believe that due to rising temperatures across the entire Arctic region, which are already melting the Siberian permafrost, the trapped methane is being released into the atmosphere.

In addition to methane, carbon dioxide in the rocks would be “baked out” and ocean water would evaporate into the atmosphere. Water vapor and methane are more cogent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. The increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor would raise the global temperature further, thereby causing more ocean evaporation, baking out of carbon dioxide and release of methane. The synergistic feedback of continued emission of these and other greenhouse gases could trigger the onset of runaway greenhouse effect which will eventually turn the Earth into an inferno with virtually no life.

Runaway greenhouse effect is not a “Chinese hoax.” Several billion years ago, Venus was cooler than what it is now and had abundance of water in oceans overlain by an oxygen-rich atmosphere. The current hellish condition on Venus where the surface temperature is a blistering 460 degrees Celsius was caused by runaway greenhouse effect.

A rapidly growing human population that more than doubled in just the last fifty years is also putting us on the throes of extinction. With a burgeoning population, food, water and a whole lot more required for sustenance of life will be in short supply. Natural resources vital to our survival are already running out faster than we can replace them with sustainable alternatives. In some cases, they have already reached their limits. Hence, it is not unlikely that once the population reaches a “critical mass,” our resources won’t be adequate enough to sustain us. As a result, starvation will bring us face-to-face with extinction, sooner rather than later.

Finally, we cannot rule out the possibility of a fast-spreading devastating disease that could wipe us out. Furthermore, with the advancement in DNA manipulation technology, it is quite likely that scientists working for the leader of a rogue nation could engineer a vicious virus or bacteria for a biological warfare and in the process obliterate our entire civilization.

For most part of the evolutionary past, we lived in a sustainable relationship with Nature, not necessarily out of choice but out of necessity. But in the past few centuries, we have gone astray. Now, we are living at odds with the natural world. We seemed to have lost touch with the magnitude of our effect on the environment. In fact, we have become a super predator pushing other species that call this planet home toward extinction.

 

As for ourselves, by letting population grow exponentially, burning fossil fuels unchecked, polluting the environment with toxins and facing the threat of extermination with weapons of mass destruction, we have embarked on the path to self-annihilation. Such a human race cannot survive for long unless dramatic changes are made to create a sustainable future.

Barring a nuclear armageddon, we may not witness the sixth mass extinction during our lifetime. However, one hundred years or so from now, more of human-caused stress on our planet could accelerate the occurrence of the sixth and perhaps the last mass extinction.

The writer, Quamrul Haider, is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York